Australian universities launch inclusivity bidding war

Labor minister’s insistence that postcode should not determine opportunity sparks new initiatives

August 31, 2022

Australian universities have unleashed an inclusivity bidding war after their new federal minister nominated equity as his higher education policy priority.

The country’s oldest university has vowed to more than double the number of scholarships it awards to underprivileged locals. “We are determined to level the playing field,” said University of Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott.

“It’s our first step to ensure many more of Australia’s best and brightest will have the opportunity to study at Sydney, regardless of their circumstances or background.”

The commitment, part of the university’s new 10-year strategy, follows crosstown rival UNSW Sydney’s 23 August pledge to boost admissions from underprivileged backgrounds.

UNSW’s 2025 strategy had set a target for 15 per cent of new students to come through its “Gateway” programme, an alternative entry pathway for students from about 400 “educationally underrepresented” schools in outer suburbs and regional New South Wales.

That target has now been revised, with 25 per cent of newly arrived students to come from economically disadvantaged areas by 2027, as UNSW strives to “better reflect the broader population”.

Its promise was trumped just a day later, when the University of Queensland (UQ) vowed that 30 per cent of its domestic undergraduates would come from more deprived socioeconomic, regional or remote backgrounds within 10 years.

Vice-chancellor Deborah Terry said the newly launched “Queensland Commitment” signified “a deliberate shift within UQ towards a greater focus on equity and inclusion”.

Education minister Jason Clare said individual universities were “doing good things” despite the sector’s overall failure to meet a 2020 target, set by higher education reviewer Denise Bradley in 2008, for disadvantaged students to comprise 20 per cent of university enrolments.

Mr Clare hailed the “big commitments” from institutions like UQ and UNSW. “On their own, actions like this change lives,” he told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in Sydney. “Acting together, reforms like this change nations.”

Addressing Canberra’s National Press Club on 31 August, Professor Scott said education was “the most powerful tool yet discovered” to overcome inequality. “But if we’re not vigilant and not committed, lack of educational opportunity can entrench disadvantage and inequality for generations to come.”

He said the university intended to multiply the number of scholarships awarded to commencing undergraduates from about 600 a year at present to 1,600 by 2032.

The scholarships will also be far more generous than the current A$5,950 (£3,510) bursaries for first-year students. The new MySydney Scholarship, which begins next year, offers A$8,500 annually for the duration of recipients’ undergraduate studies as well as academic support, career advice and mentoring.

“We’ll be providing accommodation support for those who need it, coming in from far away,” Professor Scott added.

Asked whether the students would be accommodated in the university’s on-campus residential colleges, which have attracted reputations as bastions of white privilege and nasty hazing rituals, Professor Scott said “colleges aren’t our only options”.

“The university actually now owns quite a lot of other accommodation in the environment as well. It’s been a big investment.”

He said the colleges were “attempting to undergo significant change” and their Indigenous residents were “having a very well supported and very satisfactory experience”.

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